The Galaxy made it to the MLS Cup final 14 months ago, losing on penalty kicks to Real Salt Lake. They stood 90 minutes from a return trip to Major League Soccer's title game last November.
Nothing the club has achieved since Bruce Arena took charge in August 2008 -- and last year's Supporters' Shield, for best regular-season record, was a sizable accomplishment -- stands up to the failure to win American soccer's premier prize the past two seasons.
This year, (almost) nothing else matters.
The Galaxy, reasonably, are throwing everything toward winning the MLS Cup championship this year: It's the final year of David Beckham's contract in L.A., and what better way to declare as success its complicated partnership with soccer's premier star attraction than with a shiny trophy?
L.A.'s top attacker, captain Landon Donovan, is in his prime, but Beckham will be 36 in May and Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel -- acquired to replace top scorer Edson Buddle, who took off for Europe -- is not a long-term answer. He'll be 36 in October.
The Galaxy has an able goalkeeper (Donovan Ricketts, the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year), a young, solid backline (led by Best XI defender Omar Gonzalez) and superstars at three attacking positions. It's a starting point, but if L.A. wants to contend with RSL (the preseason team to beat) -- and keep pace with FC Dallas (last year was a start, not an aberration), the Colorado Rapids (an unlikely but deserving champion) and the San Jose Earthquakes (really on the rise) -- they'll need to be faster and more dynamic than they are right now.
Here's what you need to know heading into preseason camp (the Galaxy began Monday; their first on-field session is next Monday):
Angel probably (not probably, certainly) is the finest pure striker ever to find employ in MLS, and if he stays on target -- he scored 61 goals in four seasons with the New York Red Bulls, 14 last year -- the Galaxy won't miss Buddle all that much. We're looking forward to how this plays out: The Colombian veteran is no prima donna, and should he and Donovan (and Beckham, when he arrives from England) find quick chemistry, L.A. could be great fun to watch this year.
Two more forwards of varying standard -- Chad Barrett, who scores goals, and Adam Cristman, who doesn't -- step into the mix up front. Ageless right back Frankie Hejduk adds depth in the back and on the flank. Three midfielders (Uruguayan Paolo Cardozo, local kid Hector Jimenez and Ivy Leaguer Daniel Keat) highlight the rookie class.
It must have been apparent to the Galaxy rather early in the process that Buddle wasn't coming back, not at less-than-Designated Player earnings (and not next to the lure of top-level European soccer, which Ingolstadt is not). The big forward's presence dominated L.A.'s offseason maneuverings leading into the draft, naturally so: He scored 19 goals last year, a number of them of real quality, and was a popular No. 2 in the league MVP balloting.
The young forward of the future, Tristan Bowen, also is gone, off to Chivas in a deal for allocation money. And, disappoiningly so, central midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who always played with incredible bite and energy, but ultimately was too costly to keep. Eddie Lewis and Chris Klein retired, and Alex Cazumba and Yohance Marshall were released.
THREE PIVOTAL PLAYERS
1. Landon Donovan: The Galaxy's catalyst and chief creator, likely as (again) a left-sided midfielder with the freedom to roam. Taking aim: How about double-digits in goals and assists, numbers that ought to signal a title run.
2. Juan Pablo Angel: Big (6-foot-1) elegant forward who can score from garbage will feast on Beckham crosses, Donovan service -- if all goes to form.
3. David Beckham: How desperate will the big star be to win a title before he's gone? How soon before he's looking ahead, for the next assignment?
THREE PLAYERS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE
1. David Beckham: He's spent the past month angling for a loan deal to Tottenham that hasn't (and apparently won't) come down, and first question is how he'll be after things didn't go his way. Those who know Beckham say he'll always give a complete effort -- but 2008 wasn't a lie.
2. Juninho: We don't know how good Uruguayan rookie Cardozo is, whether he's capable of doing great things and needs a spot in the starting XI to blossom into what he's sure to become. Either way, the Galaxy's best Brazilian needs to build on an encouraging 2010 campaign and become more of a creative force.
3. Omar Gonzalez: The tall Texan in the back followed a superb rookie campaign (2009 MLS Rookie of the Year, in a good class, too) with a strong sophomore year (2010 MLS Best XI), and now he's got designs on a U.S. national team job. His next step: becoming MLS's dominant center back.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Is MLS Cup all that matters? Short answer, yes, absolutely. This is a one-year rebuild, and success is all about the league title. But the Galaxy also has something to prove in the next CONCACAF Champions League, which will begin next summer, after last year's flameout.
2. What will be Donovan's role? Donovan's versatility is part of his genius; a great debate: Is he a better forward or midfielder? Either spot, he's the chief figure for the Galaxy, as goal scorer or creator (and, always, a lot of both). Likely, he'll be where he was last year, primarily on the left flank (but with a free reign to go where he needs to be) and occasionally on the right side or up front as the first or second forward.
3. Did the "Beckham Experiment" succeed? Depends on what you want. If bringing MLS worldwide (and increasingly favorable) attention, increasing the sport's domestic profile, being a big part of one of the league's best teams (in the world's most competitive league -- not best, just most competitive), and selling a lot of Galaxy gear adds up to success, then by all means. If he needs to win an MLS Cup title, then let's see. If he needed to turn America into a nation of believers, then we're asking too much.
THREE GREATEST CONCERNS
1. Old, slow legs: The big plus to A.J. DeLaGarza during last year's stretch run was what the speed he brought to the backline, so important an element -- especially, as we saw, in the playoffs. The Galaxy has shed some of its veteran weight, but it's hardly unreasonable to figure this lineup could get a run-out at some point: Ricketts (age 33); Hejduk (36), Gonzalez (22), Gregg Berhalter (37), Todd Dunivant (30); Beckham (35), Jovan Kirovski (35 on March 18), Chris Birchall (26), Donovan (29 on March 4); Angel (35), Mike Magee (26). That's seven guys 30 or older. And L.A. isn't as fast or athletic as Real Salt Lake, Colorado or FC Dallas to begin with.
2. Scoring goals: It's always a problem, even when it's going well, and no different for the Galaxy, which failed to develop a second goal-scoring threat at forward last year. Angel ought to approach Buddle's numbers, especially with (if) a full season with Beckham. Like Barrett or not, there's no denying he scores goals. (No denying, either, that he fails to score goals he should score.) A healthy Magee could prosper from the competition; he was at his best at season's finish. And double-digits always should be Donovan's aim.
3. The Future: Let's say the Galaxy win the MLS Cup title this year. Or let's say they don't. What's next? That's the big uncertainty: the foundation on which L.A. might be rebuilding a year from now. Beckham almost certainly won't be back, but Arena could decide to run it out -- Angel probably will return, and Donovan ought to be back, unless he's off for Europe. Or Arena could blow it up and start over, with a few anchors (Gonzalez, although he'll be in Europe before long, Sean Franklin, Michael Stephens). One of his favorite parts of coaching, and possibly that in which he is most skilled, is building teams, putting players together to invent a team. Will he stick around to do it again?
Gym work the rest of the week, with the first on-field session planned for Jan. 31. L.A. will train at HDC through Feb. 12, with games Feb. 8 against Portland and Feb. 10 against San Jose, then a little more than a week in Arizona (with games Feb. 16 against Colorado and Feb. 20 and 22 vs. Vancouver). The Galaxy returns to HDC on Feb. 24 and plans to train at home until the March 15 opener.
March 15 against the Seattle Sounders in the league opener at Qwest Field. ESPN will show the game at 6:30 p.m. PT. … Home opener is Sunday, March 20, vs. the New England Revolution at Home Depot Center. Start time: 5 p.m.
1. Donovan Ricketts
2. Josh Saunders
1. Sean Franklin + Omar Gonzalez + A.J. DeLaGarza + Todd Dunivant
2. Frankie Hejduk* + Leonardo + Gregg Berhalter + A.J. DeLaGarza
1. David Beckham + Juninho + Chris Birchall + Landon Donovan
2. Sean Franklin + Jovan Kirovski + Michael Stephens + Michael Stephens
1. Juan Pablo Angel* + Chad Barrett*
2. Adam Cristman* + Mike Magee
* -- newcomers